Where have all the good first basemen gone?

Mike Stobe

With teams scrambling to pick up even passable first basemen, let's look at how the position has fared historically.

It's hard to remember in March, but there was a time when you weren't that sick of the offseason. Oh, you passed along that Rogers Hornsby quote on Facebook, and you complained a little bit about baseball leaving, but the offseason was wide open. Your team could do anything. The Astros almost signed Masahiro Tanaka. Your team could do anything.

Anything …

Anything …

The Pirates could have used a first baseman. The Brewers desperately needed a first baseman. Both teams stuck with internal options and non-roster dreams for now. Behind the scenes, there's a mad scramble for Ike Davis and Mike Carp: Loser gets Rico Brogna if they're lucky. They had the entire offseason with unlimited possibilities. Here they sit, broken hearted.

Theory #1: We should all laugh at the Pirates and Brewers for being unimaginative.

Hold on, though. The Tampa Bay Rays had to fight all of those teams off with a rake to give James Loney one of the bigger deals in franchise history, a three-year deal for $21 million. The Rays are smart. They spend significant money on James Loney. On purpose, no less. Maybe there's something to the dearth of options at first base.

Theory #2: This is a historically lean time for first basemen.

It would explain why the Loney deal a) happened and b) made sense. In this slugger-bereft era, no one's been harder hit than the first basemen, who are now a mishmash of toothpick-swinging ne'er-do-wells. When teams are willing to trade for Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez when the milk's still fresh but the expiration date has passed, that's because there's just nowhere else to find a first baseman.

Except we can use stats to prove this one. We'll use adjusted OPS (OPS+) because a) it's adjusted for era and b) easily searchable in Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index. Over 100 is above-average, though not necessarily for a first baseman, so let's use a range of results. Apologies for the technical jargon in the graph titles.



There are peaks and valleys from year to year, but there's nothing really different about the modern era of first basemen, at least when compared to the league average. If you want an era free from first-base sluggers, check out 1949, when Johnny Mize was Mike Trout compared to his peers.

(If you're wondering about the 120-percent mark in the first graph, it's because two players on the same team can play more than half their games at first, while still qualifying for the batting title.)

With the stats in hand, we need to throw the second theory out. There are plenty of good first basemen out there. This is not a historically bereft time for first basemen. Now we need to figure out if we should go back to laughing at the Brewers and Pirates.

The raw numbers are helpful, but let's actually see who made up that group of "good" first basemen last year.

Player Under contract through Was he available?
Brandon Belt 2017 No
Allen Craig 2018 No
Chris Davis 2015 No
Edwin Encarnacion 2016 Probably not
Prince Fielder 2020 Yes
Freddie Freeman 2021 No
Paul Goldschmidt 2019 No
Adrian Gonzalez 2018 No
Adam Lind 2016 Maybe
Brandon Moss 2016 Probably not
Mike Napoli 2015 Yes
Joey Votto 2023 No

If a team wanted a "good" first baseman this offseason, they needed Mike Napoli. If they couldn't get Napoli, the second option was to swallow a chunk of Prince Fielder's contract. If that wasn't an option, all that was left was to call the Blue Jays and see if they were willing to sell high. They probably were not.

That's what's behind the Loney scramble and the Mike and Ike scrum. It's not that there aren't any good first baseman; it's that there aren't any available. That, combined with our ever-adjusting expectations in the post-PED era, makes it seem like there isn't a lot of talent at first right now. Marc Normandin figures this is behind the Braves' decision to pay Freddie Freeman like a star, even if we're not sure he can keep that up yet.

Don't laugh at the Brewers and Pirates. They were just caught in a game of musical chairs, and when the music stopped one of them was sitting in Juan Francisco's lap. The other one was getting something from the fridge, I think. When it comes to first base right now, it's develop or die, and the minor leagues aren't exactly overflowing with first base prospects. It could be like this for a while.

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